Sewing: Men’s shirt III

So I’m working on this 18th Century men’s shirt (aka Pirate Shirt a la mode de Bernadette Banner) with hand sewing mostly throughout, at least so far, in order to learn how long it takes, and what kinds of savings of time get introduced through a sewing machine. Part I, in which I cut out the fabric parts and trimmed them to the correct sizes, and Part II in which I further trimmed parts and pieces and learned to lay out the elements of the shirt, have both already been published. Now we can actually get to the sewing. Maybe.

Historically, I have not had much luck with shirts. I’ve tried my hand at seven of them, and three still fit three years later, after washing, mis-washing, staining, outgrowing, mis-cutting or mis-shaping the garment. Nor am I a standard size, having rather too much belly in the middle and not as much chest as many men. But… here we go again. This one should be long enough, and (if I add some sections under the arms, below the gussets), wide/thick enough even for my middle…

First steps complete with the fabric cut and squared (see Parts I and II), I now move on to something that @wandringbritchz recommended on Twitter — to put a single thread of a different color into the fabric at the mid point of the top of each of the shirt-body’s pieces: one at the center back, and two at center-front.

Why two at center front? Because the next step is to cut the v of the v-neck of the 18th century shirt: this involves finding the middle thread on the fold, and gently pulling the warp thread free of the fabric. Putting two threads in, on either side of the fold, helps you choose which thread you’re going to pull out.

And then the teasing begins. Under ideal circumstances, which rarely prevail, you do not want to pull this thread out in a way that the thread at the other end of the fabric starts to come free from its moorings. You want to remove the top ten inches of this thread, not any part of the thread at the other edge. That one has to stay locked in place, or you wind up creating a run, perfectly, right down the middle-front of your shirt, like a run in your pantyhose. This is a great way to ruin a shirt before you’ve even assembled it.

So. Slowly. Carefully. You use a needle, or a pin with a head, to gently tease the single warp thread loose from the weft, gradually creating a run down the middle of the shirt. As you go, it’s helpful to use scissors to clip open the path, so you don’t lose track of it as the threads around it shift. Additionally, you put in a thread of a different color at the 10″ mark from the edge that you’re cutting in from, so you don’t accidentally go too far. Sometimes you can get 1-2″ to come loose all in a row, more often it’s 1/4″ or even 1/8″ or even just one or two weft threads at a time. It’s tedious.

I’m also hoping this is the last time I’ll have to do it on this project.

Once that’s done, it’s a matter of folding over the two edges, to create what are known as rolled hems. A rolled hem is two folds: the first fold is away from the cut in the middle of the fabric, and the second fold tucks the first fold inside of itself, to prevent the fabric from unraveling. You did, after all, just remove a couple of threads from the middle of the fabric and leave two easily-unraveled edges right in the middle of the front of your shirt.

These folded, rolled hems will now be encased inside themselves with hand-stitching in a style called a “felled seam”. This is a series of diagonal stitches, catching 1-2 threads on the front of the fabric, and 1-2 stitches on the inner edge of the rolled seam. There are tutorials online, but I used the one that Bernadette Banner included in her video on how to make an 18th century “Pirate Shirt” which is the one that I’m using here. She gives another video demonstration in her video on traditional hand-stitching, too. (Later on, we’ll need the Buttonhole stitch, explained here.)

Now we sew the felling stitch all the way up one side of the rolled hem, and all the way back down the other. The standard is something like 15-20 stitches per inch, which my skills are not up to doing. This is averaging 8-12, because I am unevenly doing this work.

At the beginning, I found my shoulders cramping up as I did this work, because I was unused to it, but as I continued stitching, I found that my shoulders relaxed and it became very easy and meditative. There was that kind of single-minded focus and deliberate concentration, although it’s very easy to fall into bad posture while doing this work (even while sitting at a chair or stool that is at the right height compared with the sewing table which is supporting the garment parts.

I think that we underestimate in magical work, the value of creative labor with this kind of single-minded focus. Arnemancy and I have spoken about this in some of our conversations, including the “Wizards of the Future“, but he certainly encountered it in the course of working on his magical robe as described in “Creating the Magical Robe” (partly inspired by my own article, Neglect Not the Robe), and again in his article on arts and crafts in ceremonial magic. This single-minded attention to what is in front of you is really helpful in creating sigils and talismans, performing rituals, and memorizing ritual scripts; but it’s also useful in projects like this one, and it’s a supplement (not a replacement) to the work of seated meditation that can benefit us all. It’s also a mindset that prior ages would have recognized and found helpful; and when they recommended that a magus make his own knife or wand or altar-table or table-of-practice or candle stand or what-have-you, they would have recognized in the artisan’s mastery of material, attention, and focus… the same kind of focus that they cultivated in the goetic circle.

Which brings us, at the last, to the finished rolled hem. Aware that I’ve now let another two hours accumulate to this project and I’d promised I’d be away for only an hour and a half, I cleaned up my workspace, and finished by putting in my next thread-markers, and laying out my next assembly. In the last photograph above, you can see one of thee markers at (1), which will wind up being the left edge of the neck-hole; and at (2), you can see under the ruler, the shape of two rectangles of cloth which will be sewn into place on the outside and inside of the shirt. These will prevent the bottom of the rolled hem from ripping open and tearing through the front of the shirt along that carefully opened seam-line. It’s a place of reinforcement, and once it’s finished, there’s likely nothing that can tear the front of the shirt open. The fabric may get worn or pilled or damaged, but it’s unlikely to rip at the place of reinforcement. Linen is strong stuff.

And so we add on another two hours to this project. We’re up to ten hours, and so far I’ve sewn a grand total of … 20 inches of fabric. We’ll see what we can get accomplished tomorrow… although first I have about thirty thank-you notes to scribe, so that comes first.

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    • The process of thread-squaring each piece was tedious indeed. I would not do this with quilting cotton, where the threading is even finer and more tightly-packed. But for a shirt, this is going to be lovely.

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